The Palestinians have responded to recent statements from the Trump transition team in a predictable manner. They’re treating the possibility that at long last a U.S. president will make good on a campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as an outrage. Top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat put Trump and the Israelis on notice yesterday in a conference call heard at a Wilson Center policy forum. Erekat said the Palestinian Authority would revoke its recognition of Israel—which was part of the Oslo Accords—and claimed that popular Muslim outrage about the belated U.S. recognition of where Israel’s capital has been for the past 67 years would force the closure of every American embassy in the Arab world.
While their withdrawal of recognition is a bluff, given the desire of the Palestinians to stir up as much trouble for the U.S. as possible if the embassy move happens, Erekat may be right about the latter prediction. But critics of the incoming administration, instead of merely bemoaning the possible ramifications of Trump’s plan and referring to it as a deathblow to the two-state solution, should perhaps ask themselves why it is the Palestinians are so mad about the prospect?
The usual answer is that U.S. recognition of any part of Jerusalem as being sovereign Israeli territory and the country’s capital would prejudge the outcome of peace talks that would set the borders of a putative two-state solution. The State Department has insisted that any change in America’s diplomatic arrangements are permanently on hold awaiting the conclusion of a peace treaty.
But those who consider Trump’s possible embassy coup an attack on the two-state solution have it backwards.
The whole point of those pushing for withdrawal from the West Bank and for re-dividing Jerusalem in order to create an independent Palestinian state (in addition to the one that already exists in all but name in Gaza that is run by Hamas), is to force Israel to treat the 1967 lines as the border between the two countries. That’s why President Obama demanded that the 1967 lines be the starting point for all negotiations. But if the 67 lines are to be considered sacred then that also means that West Jerusalem—the parts of the city that were not illegally occupied by Jordan during the War of Independence and which functioned as Israel’s capital from 1949 to 1967—really is part of Israel and should be treated that way.
If the Palestinians see a two-state solution as the goal, they’d have no problem with a U.S. embassy in the city as long as it was accompanied by a similar resolve to employ another one in an Arab neighborhood as the American embassy to Palestine. Considering that the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem is located in such an area and that it functions for all intents and purposes as an embassy to Palestine then this would be a strong talking point for Erekat and the PA.
But they have no interest in even posing such a demand because they still see the conflict as a zero-sum game rather than a rational negotiation seeking a solution to end the impasse.
Peace process advocates have always tried to rationalize the the Palestinians’ repeated refusals of Israeli peace offers including statehood and the share of Jerusalem they’ve demanded as mere happenstance—a result of bad timing that was usual the fault of the Israelis. But the repeated failures of the talks are not the result of coincidences. Rather, they are functions of a Palestinian mindset that continues to view peace as something to be avoided rather than embraced.
When it comes to Jerusalem, the Palestinian stance is particularly revealing. In their diplomatic campaign to isolate Israel they have claimed that the Temple Mount and even the Western Wall are exclusively Muslim shrines, denying Jewish ties to these holy sites and the city as a whole. Just as they view cities such as Tel Aviv as being as much an example of an “illegal settlement” as the most remote hilltop encampment in the West Bank, so, too, do they deny the right of Israel to any of Jerusalem.
In addition to rectifying an anomalous and unjust situation that treats Israel differently from every other country in the world, an embassy move could jumpstart peace talks and give them new urgency. A U.S. embassy in Jerusalem that treated only the city’s Western sector as part of Israel would actually be step toward a two-state solution that would envision an Arab capital in the rest of the city, assuming the Palestinians actually wanted one. The opposition of the Palestinians to such a step—and their hope that the rest of the Arab world can be persuaded to riot to back up their stance—is a tipoff that they are still stuck in a mindset that is opposed to real peace. It’s time those Americans and others who claim to be supporters of peace caught on to this disturbing truth.
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Two States and the Embassy
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Declinism never changes.
In November 1995, COMMENTARY published a symposium called “The National Prospect” in which dozens of writers offered their view of America’s possible future. I just went and looked at my entry in that symposium, which I had not thought of in years, because of Laura Ingraham’s statement on TV last night that “The America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people, and they are changes that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don’t like … this is related to both illegal and legal immigration.”
What my symposium entry indicates is that views like hers have been percolating on the Right for decades. I thought you might find it interesting to read:
“This is not the country my father fought for,” a one-time colleague who grew up as an Army brat was telling me over lunch five years ago. He sang a threnody of national faults, and I could only hang my head in mute agreement—crime, multiculturalism, educational collapse, everything conservatives have worried over and fought against for twenty years or more.
He grew more and more excited. From multiculturalism, he began talking about the threat posed by immigrants, and from that threat to the threat posed by native-born blacks. As he was taken over by his passion and imagined me an ally in it, he began dropping words into his monologue that in his calmer moments he never would have used with me, words like “nigger” and “wetback” I had heard used only in rages and then only maybe twice before outside of a movie or TV show. And then, forgetting himself entirely, he allowed as how Jews were blocking the true story of our national decline.
It is not only inconvenient to hear words you might have spoken coming out of the mouth of a racist, nativist anti-Semite. It is also a reminder that ideas you hold dear may be used as weapons in a war you never intended to fight—a war in which those weapons may be turned against you just as my one-time colleague turned his assault on multiculturalism into an assault on Jews.
This is my warning as we consider the national prospect. Those who believe America is in a period of cultural decline are obviously correct; I am not at all sure how anyone of good will could argue otherwise.
And yet, and yet, and yet. It is one thing to worry over and battle against the dumbing-down of our schools; the assault on taste, standards, and truth posed by multiculturalism; the rise of repellent sexual egalitarianism; even the dangers of advanced consumerism are becoming increasingly worrisome.
But it is quite another thing to make the leap from that point to the notion that the nation itself is in parlous and irreversible decline. After all, nations are always in parlous moral health; nations are gatherings of people, and people are sinners. When the United States was putatively healthier, back in the 30’s and 40’s and 50’s, 12 percent of its population was living in de-facto or de-jure immiseration and the Wasp majority protected its position in the elite by means of explicit quotas and exclusions.
The declinists are both wrong and spiritually noxious. After all, the purpose of declaring the nation in decline is to root out the causes of the decline, extirpate them, and put the nation on the road to health. But, for some of them, the search for causes always leads to blacks, immigrants, and Jews. In William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Harvard’s own Quentin Compson finds himself suicidal over America’s conversion into the “land of the kike home of the wop.”
Blacks and Jews are ever the inevitable, juicy target—so inevitable that they still find a link in the fevered minds of the paleo-Right, even though all blacks and Jews have in common now is the way the paleo-Right links them.
What blacks, Jews, and immigrants always seem to lack in the eyes of declinists is some version of the American character—that which my one-time colleague believed his father to have fought for. The dark underbelly of the American political experiment is the very idea of an American character itself. It is, fundamentally, an un-American idea. It is the nature of America that there is no one American character. Demography is not destiny in America as it is everywhere else; where you come from is not who you are.
I can find no quarrel with the brief of particulars offered by the declinists. But their central idea gives heart and strength to people whose threnodies can sound like the song of the siren—and must, like the siren’s song, be resisted by all strong men.
–Nov. 1, 1995
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A call for honesty.
Does liberal opinion permit Europeans to discuss the burka openly, honestly, and fearlessly?
The answer is almost certainly “no,” judging by the furious reaction that greeted Boris Johnson’s recent remarks on the full face veil donned by many fundamentalist Muslim women. “If you tell me that the burka is oppressive then I am with you,” the former U.K. foreign secretary wrote in a recent column for the Telegraph newspaper. “I would go further and say that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letterboxes.”
The left and much of the right assailed him, including his ex-boss, Prime Minister Theresa May. The main charge was that Johnson suffers from a dangerous and likely incurable condition: “Islamophobia.” Few of his many critics bothered to note that Johnson was writing in opposition to a Danish ban on the burka. Johnson is unquestionably burka-phobic, but there is scant evidence, either in his column or his long public career, that he is any sort of anti-Muslim bigot.
The column was classic “BoJo.” Johnson is the jocular type—Britons would say “cheeky”—perhaps to a fault. But more than most of the dullards who rise to the higher echelons in Europe, he has his finger on the popular pulse. Johnson knows that anxiety over the burka courses through the whole European body politic.
Few native Europeans dare voice it honestly. If a former top diplomat is raked over the intersectionality coals for doing so, imagine what would happen to Average Joe. But the anxiety is real enough. And it is legitimate, because the sight of the burka in the public square crystalizes the sense that European immigration and assimilation policy has gone horribly wrong. Concluding that this is so isn’t tantamount to hatred.
Constantly bottling up anxiety, moreover, is no less unhealthy for a collective psyche than it is for the individual. Allow me, then, to voice my own burka-phobia as a former resident of the U.K., who had grown accustomed to, say, landing at Heathrow Airport and finding myself surrounded by fully veiled faces on the express train to central London.
Actually, “accustomed” isn’t the right word, for I never quite got used to eyes without a face—to the encounter with a hidden subject, who was free to gaze into my features but who deflected my attempts to reciprocate her gaze. Eyes Without a Face, incidentally, is the title of a chilling cult horror flick from 1960, which attests to the fact that most people find free-floating, disembodied, faceless eyes deeply disturbing. (Sometimes even the eyes were hidden behind a thin mesh screen, a mechanism that completely erased the individuality of this Other.)
So, no, I never got accustomed to the burka. But it was an encounter that I had no choice but to tolerate. I was born and raised in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Muslim veiling was thus not alien to me. Imagine, then, the discomfort of the plumber or electrician from London’s more blue-collar precincts. Now add to that cultural discomfort a prohibition against expressing any discomfort, enforced on pain of social ostracism and joblessness. It’s a recipe for populist backlash.
Does all this mean that I would support a blanket ban against the full-face veil? Probably not. As much as I fret about the incohesive society bred by the burka’s presence in Europe, I also worry about the Continent’s high-handed secular progressivism. I wouldn’t want to give state agents the right to regulate religious practices in Europe, because I’m sure that those agents would go out of their way to target faithful Jews and Christians, not least to shield themselves from the same charge of Islamophobia that they casually hurl at the likes of Johnson.
But I do think that Europeans have a right to deplore the burka. Western civilization locates the dignity of men and women in their individuality, including in their facial features. The liberal reflex to silence, in the name of tolerance, those who insist on the real virtues and character of European civilization will only further radicalize the opposition. Such liberal illiberalism is not a little like a vast burka forcibly wrapped around the European mind.
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As the saying goes, you can never put the toothpaste back in the tube. Donald Trump is setting a number of precedents, many of which conservatives and Republicans will come to regret when they are cited and expanded upon by the Democrats who succeed him. But Trump’s status as a figure of cultural gravitas is not one of those precedents. Trump is only building upon a legacy that was bequeathed to him by his predecessor.
New York Times opinion writer, author, and Columbia University Professor Jennifer Finney Boylan has authored a thoughtful essay on the nature of fame. As a transgender activist and a former reality television star, she knows what it is like to be famous. She’s written a valuable exploration of a sought-out status that once achieved is often regretted. But her jumping off point—presidential fame, as opposed to influence and authority—deserves more attention.
“In considering the question of fame, though, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that the current occupant of the White House is less interested in the good works he might bring about than the fame that comes with the position,” Boylan writes of Donald Trump. Fame is a condition that comes with the oath of office, but Trump secured his fame long ago and took it with him into the White House. That kind of fame—fame for the sake of personal aggrandizement and not toward some noble end—tends to be corrupting, Boylan writes, and is often a source of regret for those who achieve it. Though she might believe the fame that Barack Obama achieved in office was a burden he bore in service to the greater good, Boylan nevertheless notes that the 44th president came to regret his notoriety. At least, that’s what he claimed.
“Barack Obama, appearing on Jerry Seinfeld’s show ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’ a couple of years ago, seemed to regret being one of the world’s most famous people,” she writes. A world-famous comedian’s comedy talk show is an odd choice of venue for confessing one’s discomfort with the spotlight. “In particular,” Boylan continues, “the president lamented, he missed the ability to just walk down the street talking with a friend unnoticed.” If Obama truly lamented his celebrity, he would have performed a more thoughtful audit of its effects not just on his life but on those around him and the country he led. It would be interesting to probe the former president’s thoughts on the matter today, particularly given his unique successor.
Barack Obama and his allies chafed at a 2008 campaign spot that implied he was more of an empty suit than a candidate of substance, but none could credibly deny the president sought out and achieved “Celebrity.” Obama made numerous appearances on non-news programs like “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report,” “Real Time with Bill Maher,” “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” “The Late Show” with Stephen Colbert and David Letterman, “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “American Idol,” “MythBusters,” “Ellen,” “Running Wild with Bear Grylls,” and so on. The president gave ESPN exclusive broadcast access to his NCAA brackets and joked with his favorite FM radio hosts. “People get their news in many different ways,” Obama’s campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki told Politico. “Sometimes it’s turning on ‘Entertainment Tonight’ and seeing what the latest news is out there.”
He was described as “too good” at social media. The former president demonstrated a knack for engaging with the young and hip on platforms that reward brevity and platitudes and punishes depth and sincerity. The first family mastered tweeting gifs, Snapchatting playful family moments, and Instagramming impromptu White House dance sessions and presidential posing sessions alongside George Clooney.
Obama’s appearance with Seinfeld occurred in 2015, and it was hardly the first or last time the president sought out forgiving alternative media venues. The former president’s IMDb page lists the accolades more often associated with a teen heartthrob than a commander-in-chief. The president received two Grammy awards and an Image award before he assumed the presidency, nominations for Teen Choice Awards, Kid’s Choice Awards, Mashable’s Tweet of the Year, and, of course, winner of the 2014 Streamy Award for best collaboration (with comedian Zach Galifianakis). The White House communications team deserved that honor more than the president. It was the White House Office of Public Engagement that organized a series of presidential sit-downs with the friendly and unchallenging young hosts of online media outlets, deliberately bypassing the legacy press in the process.
Republicans sneered at all of this, and many civically minded conservatives were sincere. But many more Republicans were envious. They wanted a Republican president who could avoid hard news interviews and press conferences and be praised for his media savvy. They wanted a Republican president who could lob tweets over the heads of the press. They wanted a Republican Obama—a president with universal cultural cachet. And they got it.
There will be some Democrats who refuse to recognize how Trump is building on Obama’s expanded definition of what it means to be presidential because they like Obama’s tweets and celebrity friends and dislike Trump’s. Raw partisanship and motivated reasoning will get you far. But no one could honestly deny that Obama’s warm embrace of celebrity helped deliver us into a new era of political reality television. To quote the former president, one of our biggest collective challenges “is the degree to which we do not share a common baseline of facts.” At least, that’s what he said on David Letterman’s new show on Netflix.
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This is yuuge.
Beginning January 1, 2019, the Trump administration will require hospitals and outpatient clinics to publicly post their prices for surgeries and other medical procedures, according to the Washington Examiner.
Nothing will help rein in ever-rising medical costs more than the kind of price transparency that has been almost wholly absent from American medicine since the coming of medical insurance in the 1930s. Once prices are known and can be compared, competition–capitalism’s secret weapon–will immediately begin to drive prices towards the low end, draining untold billions of dollars in excess charges out of the system. It will also force hospitals to become more efficient and more innovative to stay competitive at the lower price range.
Some hospitals already post prices. The Surgery Center of Oklahoma, for instance, does. Knee replacement? $15,499. Rotor cuff repair? $8,260.
Undoubtedly, insurance companies and large corporations that self-insure will find this information useful. But they already negotiate prices to levels far below the nominal price, just as Medicare does. Those without insurance, who get stuck with the often outrageously high nominal price, will benefit most. With the new transparency, they will be able to compare prices and bargain. “Why are you charging $2X, when the hospital across town will do the same procedure for $1X? Will you match that price?” The Surgery Center of Oklahoma reports that many uninsured patients are already using their prices to get their local hospital to charge less.
(Obviously, this doesn’t apply to emergency care. But that makes up only a small part of total medical costs).
Indeed, Medicare should also be required to post what it actually allows for the various medical procedures it covers (there are over 7,000 in its list), giving non-Medicare patients even more bargaining ammunition. For instance, a recent visit to my back doctor resulted in a charge for $159. Medicare allowed $79.65, slightly over 50 percent, and paid 80 percent of that. My supplemental insurance paid the rest. If the doctor was willing to accept $79.65 as full payment, why was the nominal price $159?
American medicine has a long way to go before its economics are totally out in the open and thus subject, in so far as possible, to market forces. But this is a very big first step.
Chalk up yet another major reform to the Trump administration.